Eastern Eyes Express Freight Market With 777 Conversion Program, Cargo Division
Eastern Airlines will launch a dedicated freighter business with a fleet of Boeing 777s modified using the company’s internally developed cargo conversion program tailored for volume-driven express operators, the company revealed Sept. 1.
The U.S.-based carrier, which operates a fleet of 10 767s on scheduled and charter passenger flights, has acquired 35 777s to feed its new cargo arm and provide more passenger lift, President and CEO Steve Harfst told Aviation Week. Ten of them have been delivered, and the balance will be in hand “in the next 8-12 weeks.” The aircraft are a mix of -200s, -200ERs, -300s and -300ERs, Harfst added.
Four of the 777s—two -200ERs and two 300ERs—will bolster the carrier’s passenger fleet. The majority of the rest will be converted and made available to the express-carrier market via Eastern Air Cargo. Entry into service for the first converted freighter is slated for early 2022. Harfst declined to identify any customers.
Three 777s, two -200ERs and one -200 have been inducted for conversion to freighters at Florida Modification Specialists, a Kansas City-based heavy maintenance facility recently purchased by Eastern Air Holdings, which also owns the airline. One will serve as the supplemental type certificate (STC) prototype.
“We acquired the [maintenance facility] so that we could manage and control the throughput of these airplanes, not only through the conversion process, but also all the conformity and reconfiguration work that will need to be done,” Harfst said. The maintenance facility, which occupies space originally built by TWA, employs 75 full-time staff and has hangar space for up to six 777s.
Another sister company, Foxtrot Aero, is developing the STC needed for the conversion work. Unlike other 777 conversion programs, however, the Eastern Express Freighter STC does not include reinforcing the 777’s partly composite floor structure. While this reduces the aircraft’s maximum payload, Harfst said the express market’s needs require volume to carry boxes, not payload for heavy freight.
The streamlined STC reduces the conversion time to a few weeks, Harfst said. This compares to about four months quoted for the first 777-300ER passenger-to-freighter conversion being done by an Israel Aircraft Industries-GECAS program that includes structural modifications. In addition, STC development is simplified, cutting down on time-consuming aspects such as finite element modeling analysis needed for traditional conversions. “We’re not changing the floor. We’re not doing any structural modifications,” he said. “We’re taking out all the seats, all the galleys, all the lavatories, all the overhead bins. We’re doing all the things you need to do to make that [main deck] interior volume of the 777 a Class E cargo compartment. We didn’t require any engineering technical data from Boeing because we’re not changing anything,” Harfst said. “We’re just taking stuff out.”
Harfst said STC development “started this quite a while ago,” and the program is on track to meet its 2022 entry into service time frame.
The initial Eastern 777 freighters will not have main-deck cargo doors or palletized loading systems. Harfst said plans to expand the STCs with such cargo-specific features are in the works, as is the idea of converting aircraft for other operators.
For now, the airline will focus on expanding its operation. It is working through adding the 777 to its regulatory approvals and expects to have the first passenger-configured models flying by year-end.
Plans to add 777s date back to before the COVID-19 pandemic and the related global airline downturn. When airlines reacted by retiring aircraft, including older 777s, Eastern—which bases its business model on owning mid-life and older aircraft that help keep capital costs down—stepped in. “Our business plan is to add about 8-10 aircraft per year into service, which is a reasonable plan,” Harfst said. “Given the ability to acquire these aircraft at good prices, we’re not in a great rush to have to all of a sudden figure out how to put them into service.”
The new Eastern Air Cargo business unit plans to offer charters, ACMI, and dry leasing. Harfst said the Express Freighter’s payload restrictions will not create issues placing aircraft amid a boom in express business from companies such as Amazon. If the market cools, the company’s flexibility will come into play.
“We think the market adoption of this will be really strong, especially given the current market environment,” Harfst said. “Over time, as the market comes back to equilibrium, we’ll have a couple advantages for ourselves. We’ll be a low-cost operator in the marketplace with a low-cost asset that doesn’t require high utilization, so we can ebb and flow our capacity to match that change in market equilibrium.”